The northern shores of Matsalu Bay are a favourite site among nature-lovers. The Haeska bird-watching tower is considered the best of its kind anywhere in Northern Europe. The coastal meadows and shallow bay around it attract thousands of birds at different times of year, but especially in spring, when the landscape can transform into a sea of migratory geese.
Puise, Kiideva and Haeska are traditional fishing villages in which fishermen still head out to sea of a morning to land their catch.
Cultural tourists are generally very taken with the archaic church of Mary Magdalene in Ridala, which is renowned for its murals and for the trapezium-shaped gravestones in the church yard. The ruins of Ungru castle are also attractive for their unique architecture and stand in stark contrast to the Soviet era military airfield next door.
Renowned for its natural beauty, Noarootsi is home to four separate areas protected at the national level: the Nõva and Osmussaar landscape protection zones and the Silma and Leidissoo nature reserves. The island of Osmussaar (Odensholm), which covers 481 hectares, also forms part of Noarootsi.
Noarootsi is well known for its sand dunes, pine forests and coastal bogs, as well as for its beach landscapes with their characteristic flora and ‘singing sands’. Village signs present such pairs of names as Pürksi/Birkas and Saare/Lyckholm, and even among Estonian place names you still find words that come from old Coastal Swede dialects meaning ‘harbour’, ‘peninsula’ or ‘bay’. It really is a seaside place.
Until the onset of World War II Noarootsi was populated by Estonian Swedes, whose forefathers had come to the area mainly via Finland in the 13th century. Unlike Estonian peasant folk, the Coastal Swedes lived according to Swedish law, which guaranteed them freedom and privileges.
Nõva is characterised by extensive bogs, a number of small lakes and large stands of forest rich in wild berries and mushrooms. Its beaches – some of the best for swimming anywhere in the country – stretch out for miles and are known for their ‘singing sands’.
The pine forests and bogs of the Nõva, Läänemaa Suursoo and Leidissoo nature reserves and landscape protection zones are home to large numbers of wild animals, including lynx, wolves, elk and bears. The bird life in the area is also diverse, from swans and cranes to grouse and eagles. Thousands of aquatic birds fly through (and stop in) the area during their migratory travels to and from the Arctic as well. Various species of duck and other birds winter here in ice-free waters, while the sea in the area is ruled by the flounder.
Estonia’s north-western coast, of which Nõva forms a small part, is unique not only in national terms but in Europe as a whole – it is an area of land which has risen by 110 metres since the last ice age.
The rivers in Nõva, with their itinerant deltas, are made all the more picturesque by the fact that they often form canyon-like beds through the sand dunes. Meanwhile, St. Olaf’s church in Nõva is one of the oldest wooden churches in Estonia.
Lääne-Nigula boasts the highest points in the county. Pikajalamägi Hill in Palivere, which stands at 51 metres above sea level, demarcates the coastline that existed in the area around 11,000 years ago. The peaks in this area make for the best skiing in the county, but attract visitors all year round. The nearby river has carved a distinctive valley through the local sand dunes, while Kuliste meadow with its ‘song oaks’ and ‘song stairs’ has been a popular site for midsummer festivities since the era of the first Estonian republic.
Lääne-Nigula is home to the Salajõe landscape protection zone – a karst area in which a river is swallowed up by natural hollows before emerging from beneath the ground once again 600 metres further afield as the Tiberna spring.
Lääne-Nigula is dotted with archaeological monuments, including the grave of a Polish king in the village of Vedra; the Iiatsi stone burial mound, also in Vedra, 100 metres north of Männiku farm; the Uugla stone burial mounds; and Linnamägi hill fort in the village of Keedika.
Lääne-Nigula church, which dates back to the 14th century, marks out an important parish centre. It houses copies of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. The lands around Taebla were once crossed by the Northern Lääne County road – a key route that wound its way from Keila through Keedika and Uugla towards Ridala before turning off towards Haapsalu. The village of Koela, which sprang up along the road, is home to a farm museum which was established in 1987.
In 1917 Estonian painter Ants Laikmaa bought half of Tammiku farm in the village of Kadarpiku, where he began building a home in the 1920s. He closed his studio school in Tallinn and moved to Taebla in 1932, by which time his home – the only true artist’s home built in national romance style in the country – had been more or less completed. It was never truly completed, however, and Laikmaa died in November 1942. He was buried in the 7-hectare park he had established on his own land. The park today has more than 250 species of trees and plants, including nine oaks planted by the painter himself, dedicated to other Estonian artists – including poet Marie Under and author Friedebert Tuglas. Laikmaa’s house is now the Ants Laikmaa’s Home Museum dedicated to the painter.
Anyone travelling through Võntküla in the direction of Haapsalu is bound to see the crane’s nest on top of the pole by the road. According to local tradition, it was to this post that newlyweds had to tie a wedding ribbon in order to ensure that they would have children. The more strapping the groom, the higher up the pole the ribbon was tied.
The fortress at Kullamaa was first mentioned in 1236, recounting the besieging by Order forces of the feudal fortress (Castrum Goldenbeke) built on the site of the ancient Kullamaa stronghold (Rohumägi) in 1234 by Johannes de Lode in his role as acting bishop of the Saare-Lääne region.
In the early 14th century the Lode family built a large, towered fortress with a square floor plan in Koluvere (in, it is thought, the same place as the original fortress). The current design of Koluvere castle and manor dates back to the 16th century.
Over the centuries the castle belonged to the Saare-Lääne bishopric, Swedish Lieutenant-General Friedrich von Löwen, Russian empress Catherine II’s favourite Grigori Orlov and Field-Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm von Buxhoevden.
St. John’s church in Kullamaa is thought to have been completed in its original form in the late 13th century. Of interest in its graveyard is Estonia’s oldest circular cross, dating from 1621. The gravestone is marked “Sitta Kodt MatZ”. Legend has it that the Mats in question made his fortune from collecting horse droppings, using them to fertilise his fields and growing the kind of rye that no one could better. It’s thought that the epitaph is in a Coastal Swede dialect meaning “Here lies Mats in the peace of the Lord”.
A number of well-known figures are buried in the church and cemetery at Kullamaa, among them Württenberg princess Augusta Carolina; Bible translator and man of letters Heinrich Göseken; artist Friedrich Ludwig von Maydell; composer Rudolf Tobias; eminent social figure Hans Habermann; actor Aare Laanemets; and musician Rein Samet.
Mysterious structures in the forest will lead you to Marimetsa bog and to discover ancient village roadways. Come and explore Kullamaa – Estonia’s ‘golden land’!